Democratic lawmakers, aides and strategists believe it’s just a matter of time before the Senate filibuster is substantially changed to limit the minority’s ability to stop legislation, despite a defeat on the matter last week.
Anger throughout the party at Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) opposition to changing the filibuster, which helped derail a final vote on voting rights legislation, signals opposition to filibuster reform as an increasingly untenable position with the Democratic Party, they say.
Sinema and fellow centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposed a proposal last week to change the rules to force GOP senators to go to the floor to carry out their filibuster.
But Democratic activists predict such a position will be unworkable soon for any Democrat, whether they are a liberal or centrist.
“I really do think Sinema and Manchin are the last two members of the Senate Democratic Caucus that will ever support keeping the filibuster in its current form,” said Brian Fallon, a former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who is now executive director of Demand Justice, a group that advocates for a more progressive judiciary.
“It’s hard to imagine anybody getting elected in the future that won’t arrive on a platform of getting rid of the filibuster,” he added.
In the competitive Pennsylvania Senate Democratic primary, both leading candidates, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and centrist Rep. Conor Lamb, have called for getting rid of the filibuster.
In the Wisconsin Senate Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry have also supported scrapping the filibuster.
“You’re seeing that phenomenon take hold with candidates in primaries. Mandela Barnes is for getting rid of the filibuster, John Fetterman is getting rid of the filibuster. Even [Democratic Rep.] Val Demings, who is trying to run a more moderate [Senate] campaign in Florida,” Fallon noted.
And in the Senate, centrists including Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) have now gone on record as supporting a rule change that would require opponents to actively hold the floor with debate in order to block voting rights legislation.
“It was smart strategy by Schumer to see the process through all the way to its bitter conclusion even if you knew you weren’t going to get the 50 votes. What has now happened is the 48 other Democrats have now cemented their position in favor of change. Forcing the issue has hardened the position from everybody from long-term stalwarts of the institution like Pat Leahy to red-staters like Jon Tester to in-cycle members who are generally cautious like Maggie Hassan and Kelly of Arizona,” Fallon added.
Ray Zaccaro, a former senior adviser to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) who helped spearhead the push to establish a talking filibuster to require Republicans to actively hold the Senate floor said filibuster reform will be a major issue in the 2022 midterm elections.
“It’s nearly unthinkable now to imagine the subject of Senate reform not being a very serious and broadly discussed component of any 2022 Senate race, certainly for the primaries,” he said.
Zaccaro said while 48 Democratic senators voted to require a talking filibuster only for the consolidated voting rights bill that passed out of the House, it still was a major step toward changing the Senate’s rules considering how divided the party has been in recent years on filibuster reform.
“If you consider where they come from and where they were and what they’ve gotten to, it’s a remarkable turn. It’s hard to really imagine too many other issues where we’ve seen the party coalesce in that way in the course of just one year,” he said.
Schumer was noncommittal about the prospect of filibuster reform after Democrats took over the Senate majority a year ago, telling reporters that members of his caucus would first have a wide-ranging discussion before setting out a strategy.
A major shift in party sentiment on the issue came in July 2020, when former President Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” while speaking at the funeral of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), for whom this Congress’s voting rights legislation is named.
Rules reformers said a breakthrough came in March of last year when President Biden said he agreed with Obama that the filibuster “was a relic of the Jim Crow era.”
Schumer on Thursday declared that he’s not going to give up the fight to change the Senate rules to passing election reform and voting rights legislation, which means the issue is coming back to the floor at some point in the future.
“I believe that the lessons of history are clear. When representatives have to take a stand, when they have to show the American people where they are on the issues, the right side of history ultimately prevails,” he said.
If Democrats can add two seats to their Senate majority in November by picking up the open seat held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and vulnerable incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), they can overcome the opposition of Sinema and Manchin to rules reform.
Democratic strategists, however, caution that future control of the House is also a key factor. If Democrats lose control of the House in 2023, that would blunt the momentum for reform.
They say that hitching rules reform to a popular issue, such as voting rights, immigration reform or reproductive rights legislation, enhances the chances of mustering the 50 votes needed in the Senate.
“I do truly think that there was progress made toward real filibuster reform. The conversation has shifted from being one where filibuster reform was seen as a progressive position where now it’s seen as a consensus position across the Democratic Party,” said Eli Zupnick, a former Senate aide and the spokesman for Fix Our Senate, a coalition of more than 80 groups in support of filibuster reform.
Zupnick also pointed to Lamb, the centrist Senate Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania, as well as Tester as supporting reform.
“It’s a matter of when, not a matter if” Senate Democrats change the filibuster rule, he said. “If Democrats win another few seats in 2022, hold the House … then I think they will quickly move to adjust the filibuster.”
“No matter what, the filibuster is not long for this world and this month has done a lot to move us in that direction,” he said.
The shifting sentiment among Democrats regarding the filibuster and the minority party’s ability to stop legislation is something the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted.
“The filibuster is on its way out,” Reid told MSNBC’s Joy Reid last year. “It’s not a question of if but when. It may not be tomorrow or six months from now, but the filibuster is doomed for failure. You can’t have a democracy that requires 60 percent of the vote on everything.”